Leaders occupy their positions because of some constellation of strengths. Many of these strengths are of great value to the organization. Other strengths may not be those the organization needs at this time, at least not in the intensity the leader is using them. For example, the organization may have benefited from great force of personality during its founding days and now requires more collaborative skills in its leaders. But if a leader believes certain behaviors were responsible for earlier successes, he will tend to rely on those behaviors in his current role.
Like all of us, leaders believe their actions are justified or they wouldn’t take them. In the leader’s case the evidence seems irrefutable—their leadership behavior got them where they are now! This conviction forms a barrier to self-examination. They don’t notice that the current context differs from earlier contexts in which the approach was successful. Taking action that may have been appropriate at other places or times may be inappropriate now. A governor’s hands-on management style may serve a small state well, but a governor elected president of the country needs to learn the limits of that style.
An incident in which old successful leadership behavior clashes with a changed environment can provide a courageous follower the opportunity to discuss these changes with a leader. The fallout from the incident may provide a ripe opportunity for helping the leader reexamine behavior. If events have piqued a leader’s interest in the subject, a close aide might formally or informally guide the leader through this thought process:
In what situations has the leader been most successful?
What did the leader do in those situations that brought success?
What are the similarities between those situations and the cur- rent one?
What are the differences?
How important are the differences?
Has the leader been using any of the same strategies used in the earlier situations?
Are those strategies working as well as they previously did?
Given the different situations, what changes might improve the results?
This nonthreatening approach invites leaders to examine what is working and what isn’t, what is appropriate and effective in the current environment and what isn’t. We are not offering feedback, simply asking questions that help leaders analyze the results they are getting with their current leadership methods. Skillful questioning is the mildest form of challenge to inappropriate behavior, but it is potentially extremely effective.